Lessons from the Electronic Side

It’s no secret that tabletop RPGs have had a tremendous impact on video games as a medium. There is no way to overstate this fact. Even when it’s not openly stated, sometimes you can just tell what tabletop RPG’s a writer or programmers must have played by what happens in their video game. I don’t know the source, but some wise person pointed out that the engine and AI of a video game is just an artificial GM, but even the best of the best fail to measure up to the real thing. Still, video games are lots of fun, and if you look closely, they have something to teach us about tabletop RPG’s as well
Something I’ve noticed in my years of tabletop gaming is the number of gimmicks, or overly complicated mechanics that are needlessly convoluted. In an industry full of imaginative people, it seems the first instinct for many is to be different from everyone else, no matter what. A good enough sentiment, but when it leads to rules where a simple 50/50 task resolution requires a handful of dice whose results must be applied in some esoteric way, beyond just reading and calculating the numbers, it gets in the way. Sometimes, playing around with mechanics and really hitting the crunch in a game can be fun, (D&D is still awesome after 40 years) but not at the expense of fun and the story.
One good example of this extraneous mechanic in a video game can be found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It was and still is a great game with a truly epic storyline. But you know what’s not so epic; running through Cyrodiil and Oblivion on a quest, and having to hammer on your weapons and armor every couple of minutes to keep them working. It was a solid mechanic, on a technical level, but it ultimately became an annoying distraction that took away from the rest of the game. The same goes for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Bethesda did away with armor and weapon repair in Skyrim, and it was wonderful. The story and game flowed much more smoothly once the unnecessary mechanic was tossed.
The lesson is that people play video games and tabletop RPGs for the adventure and the story, not the mechanics. Creating complex rules either for the sake of being different or because the mechanic sounds neat doesn’t really add anything to the game. It will more likely take away from it. Like the old saying goes, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” I’ve tried to keep things simple with the Writer’s System, and allow the GMs who pick it up to decide how much depth and complexity of the mechanics was needed to best fit their game and the story they want to tell. Rules and a little bit of complexity are inherent aspects of our wonderful hobby, but there’s no reason to overdo it.

Enjoy your imagination,
Kell Myers